Of all the words that have been spilled about Nelson Mandela over the years, perhaps the most interesting center around his thoughts on and contributions to the arena of sports.
Mandela understood sports to be a powerful unifier, which is why he backed the Springboks, South Africa’s (long reviled) national rugby team, during its surprise run in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. And it’s why Mandela was instrumental in helping his country land the 2010 World Cup. Sports can supersede all other differences, perceived or recognized, and in commemoration of Mandela Day, it’s worth revisiting Wright Thompson’s classic 2008 piece (for ESPN the Magazine) which examined what the World Cup meant for South Africa:
As the members of the [Springboks] dressed for the final match, they looked up to find Mandela standing in the locker room. He’d come to offer the support of all of South Africa. Some of the players, including some who’d grown up believing Mandela was a terrorist, were overcome with emotion. During the national anthem, Pienaar bit his lip so hard that blood trickled down his chin. He did not want to cry. And when the locals won, Pienaar looked up to see Mandela walking onto the field in a Springboks jersey—Pienaar’s Springboks jersey. As the president hugged the player, the 65,000 mostly white fans did what actually had been a crime just a few years before: They spoke Mandela’s name in public. Nel-son! Nel-son! Nel-son! Later, people told of seeing hard-line apartheiders standing in front of their televisions and chanting along with the crowd.
A nation had been born.